1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Monomotapa

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MONOMOTAPA. In old maps of south-east Africa, derived originally from Portuguese and from Dutch sources, an extensive region on the Cuama or Zambezi and to the south of it is styled regnum monomotapae. The precise character of the kingdom or empire to which allusion is made has been the subject of much discussion, and some modern historians have gone so far as to relegate the monomotapa to the realm of myth. But such scepticism is unjustifiable in view of the perfect unanimity with which, in spite of variations of detail, all Portuguese writers from the beginning of the 16th century onwards reiterated the assertion that there was a powerful rule known far and wide by that title.

The word “monomotapa” is of Bantu origin and has been variously interpreted. Father J. Torrend, Comparative Grammar of the South African Bantu Languages (p. 101) renders it “Lord of the water-elephants,” and remarks that the hippopotamus is even to the present day a sacred animal among the Karanga. The earliest recorded bearer of the name is Mokomba Menamotapam, mentioned by Diogo de Alcacova in 1506 as father of the Kwesarimgo Menamotapam who ruled at that date over Vealanga, a large kingdom that included Sofala. His capital was called Zumubany, an obvious corruption of the term “Zimbabwe,” regularly used to describe the residence of any important chief. The title is still found during the 18th century, but had probably become extinct by the beginning of the 10th if not earlier. Possibly its use was not confined to a single tribal section, occurring as it does in conjunction with the distinct dynastic names of Mokomba and Mambo, but the Karanga is the only tribe to which the Portuguese chroniclers attribute it. The latter, indeed, not only refer to the territory and the people of the monomotapa as “Mocaranga” (i.e. of the Karanga tribe), but explicitly assert that the “emperor” himself was a “Mocaranga.” Consequently, he must have been a negro, and the Dominican who records the baptism of Dom Filippo by a friar of the order in the middle of the 17th century actually states that this “powerful king” was a black man (“com as carnes pretas”). This alone would be sufficient to controvert the baseless assumption that there existed in southern Rhodesia a ruling caste of different racial origin from the general Bantu population. The events following on the murder of the Tesuit father Dom Gonçalo da Silveira (cf. Lusiads X. 93) sufficiently demonstrate that the monomotapa, though susceptible to the persuasion of foreigners, was an independent potentate in the 16th century. The state and ceremony of his court, the number of his wives, and the order and organization of his officials, are described by several of the chroniclers.

It is difficult to arrive at an estimate of the extent of territory over which this great negro chief exercised direct or indirect control. The most extravagant theory is naturally that which was expressed by the Portuguese advocates in connexion with the dispute as to the ownership of Delagoa Bay. The crown of Portugal based its case against England on the cession of territory contained in a well-known treaty with the monomotapa (1629), and stated that this monarch’s dominions then extended nearly to the Cape of Good Hope. A more moderate and usual view is given by Diogo de Couto, who in 1616 speaks of “a dominion over all Kaffraria from the Cabo das Correntes to the great river Zambezi.” Several 17th-century writers extend the “empire” to the north of the Zambezi, Bocarro giving it in all “a circumference of more than three hundred leagues.” It was “divided among petty kings and other lords with fewer vassals who are called inkosis or fumos.” According to these authors, however, including Dos Santos, the paramountcy of the monomotapa was impaired in the 17th century by a series of rebellions. His zimbabwe, wherever it may have been in earlier days, was now, fixed near the Portuguese fort of Masapa, only a short distance south of the Zambezi. A Portuguese garrison was maintained in it, and the monarch himself from the year 1607 onwards was little more than a puppet who was generally baptized by the Dominicans with a Portuguese name.

The only authorities of value are the original Portuguese documents collected, translated and edited by G. McC. Theal under the title Records of South Eastern Africa (9 vols., London, 1898–1903). Reference may be made to A. Wilmot’s Monomotapa (London, 1896), which is, however, to a large extent superseded by Theal’s far richer collection of material.  (D. R.-M.)